Sometime last year, a brilliant wildlife photographer, Gurcharan Roopra, inspired me to go to Kenya on safari. I’d praised Roopra’s photos on Facebook, and later, in a private message, mentioned how much vicarious pleasure I got out of his gorgeous shots of African wildlife. He suggested I go on safari too; he would put me in touch with a good safari operator.
I discussed it with my husband. We were initially hesitant; we realized it would be expensive—possibly the most expensive trip we would ever have made. Could we afford it? Should we? Most importantly, could the LO (our Little One, who turned six in January this year) be able to handle it?
One thing led to another, though, and by November, we had all our bookings made. We went and got our yellow fever vaccinations (the LO yelled blue murder and kicked the nurse) and our oral polio vaccination (the LO made faces—it tasted awful—and got her own back by signing her name in the nurse’s register and making an almighty mess of ink all over it). And then, on January 4th, we set off.
We were flying Ethiopian, and after a 6 hour flight to Addis Ababa, followed by a nearly 2 hour flight to Nairobi, we had arrived. The hotel we were booked in to was Movenpick, in Westlands. The LO alighted from the Uber we’d taken from the airport (Uber, we discovered, is the most convenient way of getting around Nairobi—and Uber ChapChap, the small car division, is ideal for a small family with no luggage, getting around from one sight to another)—and she fell in love with Movenpick at first glance.
… Or, rather, she fell in love with the whacking big gingerbread house that was part of the hotel’s Christmas decorations. Inside, the Christmas decorations were more unconventional—pride of place was held by a large and colourful Christmas tree made out of recycled flip-flops, courtesy of an organization named Ocean Sole, which works to clean the oceans and provide employment opportunities, while creating works of art like this striking tree and the animal figurines that surrounded it.
The LO, as is now pretty much expected of her, soon set about enchanting all and sundry at the hotel. The porter on duty when we arrived was the first target of her smiles. He was a warm, friendly man who took her on a little ride on the luggage trolley, chatted with her at the gingerbread house, and taught the LO her first phrase in Swahili: Asante sana. Thank you very much.
By dinner time, the LO had also made friends with the night chambermaid on our floor: they hit it off at first smile, so much so that this wonderful lady, when she discovered it was the LO’s birthday on our last day at Movenpick, specially ordered a little cake in the LO’s favourite flavour (chocolate) and iced with her favourite colour (blue). This, along with a bowl of cookies and a heartwarming handwritten card, really made the LO’s day. And ours.
But Nairobi, naturally, wasn’t just about Movenpick. We were here to see the sights.
First up was the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. David and Daphne Sheldrick played a huge part in wildlife conservation in Kenya, and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust carries on that legacy. By creating awareness for wildlife conservation, running a ‘Sky Vet’ service (which treats injured or ill wild animals), and—a major attraction in Nairobi—maintaining an elephant orphans. We arrived here a little after 11 on our first morning, just in time to listen to the hour-long talk by a staff member about the orphanage.
No talk from a podium, this. Around a muddy field, with 9 baby elephants gambolling about, rolling in the mud and playing with twigs, a couple of hundred of us spectators stood around, separated from the pachyderms by a ropes. The babies’ keepers (who act as mothers during the orphans’ early lives, even sleeping beside them) wandered about, tending to their charges and feeding them (the babies drink 24 lt of milk a day) while we learnt how these babies are looked after and how, starting at about 3 years, they begin to be reintegrated into wild herds.
Around three-fourths through the talk, the speaker announced that the 9 babies would now head back and the remaining 7 would come along to say hello to us spectators. The LO, in a burst of surprisingly jaded scepticism, told her father, “I think these baby elephants will go out this way and then come back the other way.”
Not really; the ‘new’ baby elephants which emerged were far older, and more confident around humans. So confident that their keepers, while feeding the babies, led them around the periphery so that spectators could get a closer look—and touch the pachyderms. The LO did, a gentle pat on a leathery hide. She was thrilled.
After the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, we went to the Giraffe Centre. This one, frankly, I found to be a bit of a tourist trap. For one, it’s pretty expensive (1500 Kenyan shillings per adult, as opposed to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s KSH 500). Secondly, unless you make it a point to go searching for the (sadly meagre) information on giraffes they offer, you won’t learn very much. What this place focuses on is Instagrammable moments with giraffes: you can feed the creatures as they lean across a wall (low by giraffe standards) and you place a food pellet on their tongues.
This, we soon discovered, was messy business. My husband came away with a hand dripping giraffe saliva, and the LO contented herself with feeding just one pellet to a giraffe, before going off to have her hand washed.
After watching so much eating and drinking, we were pretty hungry ourselves, so went off to The Carnivore, a restaurant which specializes in grilled meat. The table d’hote menu here consists of a soup (a fabulous sweet potato and tomato one on the day we were here), followed by the meats—meat after meat after meat. From pork and beef to lamb and chicken, to rabbit, crocodile (surprisingly tender and delicious) and ostrich (I’d never have guessed this was a bird: it looked and tasted like red meat). With several salads and an array of sauces to go with the meats, this was quite a spread. And there was dessert and Kenyan coffee to end with.
The next four days were spent travelling to and from and within Masai Mara (more about all of that in Part 2 of this blog post). But, once we were back from Masai Mara, we set about seeing more of Nairobi.
First up was the Arboretum. As I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog, I am something of a tree buff. Trees fascinate me, and as soon as I’d heard about the Arboretum, I decided I had to visit. Established in 1907, the Arboretum is managed by the Kenya Forest Department. When we entered, I first thought: this looks a bit like Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens: same concept, tall trees on either side, a well-maintained path down the middle. There was even a bamboo grove, dense and with its leaves whispering…
But no, the Arboretum is nothing like Lodhi Gardens. It’s more dense, more massive, more forest-like. The paths meander away into the greenery, many no more than mere wisps of trail. There are lawns scattered about here and there, where we saw people sitting and reading, meditating, listening to music, or praying.
And there were the trees. Cypresses and hook pines, wild gardenias and Cape chestnuts, loquats and jacaranda and guavas and acacias and whatnot. In the couple of days I’d been in Nairobi, I’d realized just how green this city is, how bursting with plant life—but the Arboretum was in a different league altogether.
We stopped briefly at a fabulous coffee shop (Kenyan coffee, naturally: it’s among the best in the world), named Connect Coffee Roasters. The LO, usually not keen on eating, polished off a chocolate doughnut all by herself and was ready to go on to the next sight.
This was the National Museum. This was a fairly small museum, but one that impressed me, because a lot of thought seemed to have gone into describing the exhibits well—the text was always just right, not too much, not too little—and very readable. The ground floor is devoted to Natural History, with a largeish gallery about East African birds, a Mammals gallery (exceptionally interesting), and a gallery on the evolution of Homo sapiens. This one was an eye-opener for me, in that though I’ve seen countless photos of fossilized remains and reconstructed figures of Homo erectus et al, actually seeing these skulls and skeletons up close made me realize just how small they were, how minute their brains must have been.
On the first floor is an insight into the political and socio-cultural history of Kenya, beginning from the lifestyles of the indigenous people, and through trade links—especially with the Arabs (who contributed in various ways, not the least by introducing words which have made their way into Swahili). The colonial period and the fight for independence—which was achieved in 1963—is also well-documented.
We had a quick lunch at the Vogue Café, which is right opposite the museum, within the museum grounds. The view from the restaurant terrace was lovely, but shortly after our food arrived, so did two tiny kittens who mewed plaintively at us as they glided silently under our table. The LO, who has no qualms about bossing and bullying parents, grandparents and pretty much anybody else whom she knows, showed herself to be a complete cowardy custard by begging her father to save her from the kittens.
The cowardy custard retreated and the boisterous child we know so well resurfaced when we went to the Snake Park next door (I’d have expected her to be frightened of snakes, but she wasn’t. Intrigued, yes; scared, no, not even of the mambas or the puffer adder, which is Africa’s deadliest snake). What she loved was the very shabby, dingy little aquarium that was part of the Snake Park, though she didn’t mind the island of greenery in the central ‘courtyard’, where some harmless species of small reptiles had been allowed free rein.
The next day (our last in Kenya, much to our collective sorrow: all of us had fallen in love with the country pretty much on the first day) began with a trip to the Railway Museum. East African Railways, as I already knew (I’d researched this some years ago for a story) have a fascinating—and bloody—history. In the late 1800s, the British decided to lay down a railway line linking Mombasa (on the Indian Ocean coastline) with Nairobi and other parts inland, eventually to stretch till the Nile in Uganda—which would help the British consolidate their power in Africa.
For the work, Indian indentured labour was brought in (mostly to work in supervisory roles) while Africans provided the bulk of the unskilled labour. The terrain was awful, there was disease aplenty, and to make matters worse, in the Tsavo area, two man-eating lions went on a rampage, disrupting work for months before they were killed. The ‘Lunatic Line’, as it was dubbed, came at the cost of nearly 2,500 lives.
Some of this we knew; some was told by a museum staffer who gave us a brief introduction, using a relief map of Kenya as reference. Once that talk was over, we were free to explore the museum on our own. The first room, which is also the largest, houses the cream of the collection: station masters’ chairs, survey maps, lots of fine old photographs of the track-laying crew, and some items—porcelain, sofas—used on board train by Princess Elizabeth when she visited Kenya with her husband Prince Phillip (as you may know, by the time she left Kenya, she was Queen Elizabeth II).
The other rooms are devoted to the communication and signalling devices used in Kenyan railways; shipping (which includes furniture salvaged from a German cruiser, the Konigsberg, sunk off the coast of Kenya in World War I); and modern Kenyan railways (which is being expanded mostly in collaboration with the Chinese).
Before we stepped out into the adjacent yard to look at the engines and coaches there, we had one last thing to look at: three claws of one of the Tsavo man-eaters. These are, ignominiously enough, kept in a small yellow plastic box which is taken out on request. The staff member who’d told us about the museum offered them to the LO to hold, and were we impressed! (The LO, whom I’d told all about the Tsavo lions long before we came to the museum, was impressed too).
Outside, in a pale blue-painted shed, stands the coach I was most interested in seeing: Coach #12 of the Uganda Railway. In this coach, a police superintendent named Ryall had huddled down one night, gun in hand, to act as bait for the Tsavo lions, which were known to try and force their way into coaches. Unfortunately for Ryall, he fell asleep—and was killed by one of the lions.
Going into this coach (it, like several of the others standing here in the yard, can be climbed into) was surreal. It was so ordinary on the inside: two long leather-upholstered seats on either side of the tiny room, a narrow space in between. So innocuous. (By the way, if you’re at all keen on animal cinema, an entertaining version of the story of the Tsavo lions is The God and the Darkness. It’s far from perfect—Roger Ebert mauled it—but I was deliciously scared while watching it).
The LO was impressed, but what she really loved was to climb into each locomotive and try to run it. After a while (it was mid-day, and getting quite warm), her father, tired of clambering into one engine after another, repeating the same explanations and instructions all over again to an excited little girl, and—naturally—lifting her up and down—called a halt to the fun.
That, then, was Nairobi. Greener, cooler (in more ways than one) than I had imagined it would be. And, if you’re heading off into the wild (or on your way back from it), a nice buffer. Even if, like us, you were pretty pampered in the wild.
But that’s a story for another travelogue. Watch this space for Part 2 of the Kenya trip.